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DataLab’s Oliver Kreylos Lands UC’s Top Prize for Tech Innovation

Kreylos’ augmented reality sandbox and immersive VR interface reduce barriers to STEM research and education

Oliver Kreylos, virtual reality research specialist at the UC Davis DataLab, won UC IT’s 2023 Larry L. Sautter Golden Award for his work on two open source technologies —  the Augmented Reality (AR) Sandbox and the Virtual Reality User Interface (Vrui) — that make it easier for researchers and students to explore concepts involving 3D data, from tiny crystalline structures to the surface of our planet.

Oliver Kreylos

The award, which recognizes innovation in information technology, was presented on July 18 at the annual UC Tech Conference, hosted this year by UC Berkeley. The awards selection committee recognized Kreylos for his pioneering development of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) software for research, teaching and outreach.

“Oliver’s latest innovations are reducing equity barriers and providing opportunities for researchers and students everywhere to interactively immerse themselves in 3D data visualizations and collaborate together in real-time,” said Pamela Reynolds, UC Davis DataLab Associate Director.

Researchers and students across the UC system and beyond are using Kreylos’ groundbreaking AR Sandbox and Vrui technology in labs and classrooms. Use of the AR Sandbox has been shown to enhance undergraduate performance in introductory to advanced sciences courses, and it has aided research teams with fieldwork planning. It also makes complex science concepts tangible to all ages.

Beyond UC: Reducing barriers to STEM research and education

With its intentionally cost-effective design and open-source software, the AR Sandbox has been embraced by universities, preschool and K-12 schools, museums, and science centers as an education and outreach tool.

“The impact of this project is astounding. We estimate that there are currently over 2,000 installations of the AR Sandbox around the world,” said Reynolds.

Oliver Kreylos demonstrating his AR Sandbox’s simulation and visualization software, which allows for hands-on interactive engagement with a 3D landscape. As users shape real sand in the sandbox, a camera captures minute elevational changes, which are interpreted by Kreylos’ software and projected back onto the sand’s surface in real-time as an elevational color map and topographic contour lines. Users can simulate rainfall or lava flows, or recreate an existing landscape like the Tahoe-Truckee Basin (/Pamela Reynolds/UC Davis DataLab).

While the initial design of the AR Sandbox was part of a prior NSF-funded project, Kreylos’ ongoing work to maintain the software, support the global user community, and develop new features is largely unfunded — sustained by Kreylos and UC Davis DataLab’s commitment to democratizing data science and supporting technology for research and encourage its use by public education centers and groups that do not always have dedicated tech support.

Kreylos is also recognized for his pioneering development of research software for virtual reality. With the Vrui software, researchers can spin, walk around, take measurements on and interactively query and subset their 3D data. Kreylos’ open source Vrui platform can be paired with mass-market VR headsets and controllers to create an immersive experience at a fraction of the cost of visualization centers like the multi-million dollar KeckCAVE that served as UC Davis’ premier data visualization facility until it was decommissioned in 2020. In 2023, Kreylos made significant advancements to the Vrui platform that enable users to create hybrid virtual workspaces so distributed teams can explore large-scale datasets in real time together.

Technology integration: The next frontier

UC Davis DataLab debuted Kreylos’ latest software development, the integration of the AR Sandbox with the Vrui platform, with exhibits at public events in Shields Library in spring 2023, including UC Davis Picnic Day, Take Our Children to Work Day, and STEM for Girls. Nearly 2,500 students, alumni, families, and community members visited and interacted with the exhibits. As children created mountains and valleys, made it rain, and bubbled up lava in the AR Sandbox, other visitors experienced these landscape and weather changes in real time by wearing VR headsets equipped with Vrui. 

This innovative, integrated experience piloted with the UC Davis community presents new opportunities for broadening participation in STEM. UC Davis DataLab sees it as the next frontier in accessible, immersive AR+VR technology for research, education, and outreach.

We imagine tomorrow’s computer labs to be full of VR headsets and maker-spaces for immersive learning. Oliver’s contributions are a huge leap towards making that a reality.”

– Pamela Reynolds, Associate Director, UC Davis DataLab

Learn more about these projects and other UC Davis DataLab innovations at


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